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Education in Popular Culture: Telling Tales on Teachers and Learners

reviewed by Glenn M. Hudak - February 24, 2009

coverTitle: Education in Popular Culture: Telling Tales on Teachers and Learners
Author(s): Roy Fisher, Ann Harris, and Christine Jarvis
Publisher: Routledge, New York
ISBN: 0415332427, Pages: 207, Year: 2008
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Remember the scene in the movie Titanic (Cameron, 1997) where Rose Dawson, who is 101 years old, is shown a computer-generated re-creation of the sinking of the Titanic. After the viewing Rose reflects, “That was a fine forensic analysis, Mr. Bodine, but the experience, well…it was something quite different.” A “fine forensic analysis”  -- what does this mean within this context? It means that Mr. Bodine had put together a clear, concise account of the events that led up to the ship’s sinking; he documents the initial contact with the iceberg; he notes that the ship’s captain doesn’t know that Titanic can’t “corner for a damn”; he notes how the iceberg “punches holes in the hull, like Morse code”; he notes the flooding of the compartments and how the compartments don’t “hold water past E deck,” etc. In short, Mr. Bodine lays out a clear, detailed account noting the events as they occur; further, he offers a crisp analysis of why those events occurred, and ultimately how all these causal factors led to the ship’s unique sinking.

Rose is nonplussed, for however accurate and insightful the forensic analysis may be, it is, as Rose points out, not her experience, her “truth” of the sinking: the sheer panic that the passengers and crew feel as the ship sinks, the pain as loved ones are separated, and of course the ensuing death of Jack, who “will never let go.” The brilliance of the film is that it brings facts and falsehoods (the fictional narration) together to re-create Rose’s experience. These facts and falsehoods help drive home the film’s “moment of truth” as stated by Rose,

1,500 people went into the sea when Titanic sank from under us. Six people were saved from the water, myself included. Six out of 1,500, Mr. Bodine. Afterward the seven hundred people in the boats had nothing to do but wait… wait to die, wait to live, wait for an absolution that would never come.  

Indeed! How could this happen? How could they let their fellow passengers perish in the freezing waters of the North Atlantic? We in the audience, as well as Brock and his salvage team, are pushed to ponder, to “work through” the “truth” of Titanic, as we dry our eyes in disbelief. Mr. Bodine’s “fine forensic analysis” is necessary to our understanding of the sinking, but it is not sufficient to present us with the “truth” of the event. I remember Brock saying, “I never let it [Titanic’s truth] in.” It is Rose’s narration that cements understanding with lived experience, making it possible for us to engage emotionally with the “truth” about the sinking of Titanic.

I bring these scenes from Titanic to the forefront as they frame my discussion of Education in Popular Culture: Telling Tales on Teachers and Learners. The standard for my discussion about popular culture and education is drawn from popular culture. As I reviewed this text by Fisher, Harris, and Jarvis I couldn’t help but think to myself, “a fine forensic analysis.” The text, Education in Popular Culture is just that -- a fine forensic analysis of the multiple and contradictory ways in which popular culture frames and represents education. In their investigation of popular culture’s representation of schooling, the authors introduce the text by laying out framing questions to address the following questions:

What views of education and educators emerge from this wealth of material? What do such texts suggest about the educational concerns of the societies that produce them? What do they indicate about educational ideologies and priorities, about the tensions that might exist between different perspectives? How do popular cultural texts convey the effect and impact of education on individuals and communities? What do they suggest about our fears and expectations of education, about the challenges it offers, the desires and disappointments it creates? How do these texts relate to other educational discourses: for example, those of professionals, academics and policy-makers. (p. 2)

To address these questions and concerns, the authors use the introductory chapter to situate the study of popular culture and its relationship to education and schooling. They do this by locating educational themes within popular fiction, biography and autobiography, film, cyber culture, comics and cartoons, television and radio, and popular music. To enhance their discussion they next provide a cultural studies “toolbox,” laying out the important concepts in the study of the representation of popular culture; this includes a working definition of popular culture drawn from the works of Williams, Gramsci and others.

After situating the reader and providing us with a cultural studies “tool box,” the authors present a very detailed sociological study of the ways in which popular culture—here examples and analyses are drawn from film, TV, popular music, and popular fiction in the UK, USA, and Australia—influences not only our thinking about schooling, but also our images of teachers and youth, specifically the relationship between students and teachers -- from the formal to the intimate and the sexual -- the “bad” teacher and the student’s response; the formation of youth identity, including friendships, developing trust, and gendered and racial identity; the study of institutional power, and the vulnerability of students within the school context, especially in popular culture’s portrayal of bullying; and popular culture’s “take” on higher education, and the implications for educational policy -- especially professional and political discourses revolving around teachers’ work.

All in all, I highly recommend this text for either undergraduate or graduate level courses in either popular culture or cultural foundations of education. This study is clearly written and adequately researched, and it goes deeply enough beneath the surface to . . . well . . . provide a fine forensic analysis.

By now you’re probably wondering, given my positive evaluation and recommendation to this study, why I continue to refer back to “a fine forensic analysis” as my bottom line? What’s up my sleeve? If you remember the scene referred to earlier, Rose is not really trying to critique Mr. Bodine’s analysis of the sinking of Titanic. Instead, she is alluding to the fact that something is missing in his analysis, something that he cannot provide -- the lived-experience of the sinking, the sheer trauma of this event lived by Rose Dawson. Indeed, the “rub,” or the tension in this scene is between analysis, analytic understanding and lived-experience -- one’s “truth” of the event. As I reviewed Education in Popular Culture, I, too felt like Rose, to a certain extent, in that something was missing in the analysis, even as I agreed with the analysis presented. I am not naive enough to suggest that this study is lacking because it does not provide the lived-experience of popular culture or of education, as this is not the intent of the study at all. So what’s my problem here? Let me refer to my concern as a tension in the text that is neither resolved nor fully addressed -- the relation between understanding and the structure of one’s lived-experience-as-truth, between, for example, Mr. Bodine’s and Rose’s “take” on the sinking of Titanic. What instigated this concern is a question that is posed on the back cover of the text: “What is it about the school experience that makes us wish to relive it again and again?”  

I assume this question is a marketing strategy to catch the casual reader’s attention—and it works, as it got my attention. It’s a great question precisely because it is so ambiguous; it is not clear from this question whether this question (and the answer) is to be addressed from the perspective of a larger sociological analysis grounded in current research (the text), or from the perspective of the lived-experience of the reader—me. When I read this question the phraseology -- “school experience,” “makes us,” “wish,” “to relive”-- all suggest to me an existential “take” on schooling. For instance, the phrase, “makes us wish,” does not strike me as particularly sociological, though it could be—and this is my point; it is ambiguous as to how we, the readers, are to situate ourselves with regard to the answer. I feel a tension located within this question. That is, I know this text is intended to provide a sociological analysis of pop culture and education; however, when I read this question I found myself asking, what is it about my school experience that makes me wish to relive it again and again?

I found myself playing with this question, and then began to “free associate” the notion of “wish” as wish and wish fulfillment are addressed in psychoanalytic studies (see chapters 3 and 5 in Lear, 2005) and finally found myself reflecting on a dream I have had over the years. In my dream I am in a high school classroom seated at a desk. I’m told (somehow) that my BA, MA, and PhD are all null and void…because I never finished high school. And since I never finished/graduated, I have to repeat my senior year in high school. I usually wake up from this dream feeling anxious. So why am I reliving, in the symbolic format of a dream, the school experience? Why does my schooling experience persist? What is there about my school experience that I wish (unconsciously) to relive over and over?

The text, Education in Popular Culture (2008), touches, in part, on the answer; schooling, for most of us, is a traumatic event. Consider, for example, chapter 6, “Don’t Pick on Me,” where the authors investigate bullying as a socio-cultural phenomenon found in all schools. Drawing from the work of Foucault, child developmental theory, and Mac an Ghaill, amongst others, the authors state that “bullying is an experience and it is an aggressive and a manipulative act. A victim can be hurt physically, emotionally or psychologically, but, inevitably, all bullying will have an emotional dimension” (p. 110). To explore the complex nature of bullying, they examine several films and TV programs, including Mean Girls and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. They conclude that while there is no simple solution to bullying, popular culture can profile and bring to the forefront the trauma of bullying.

For many, that recognition is important. Perhaps, it is up to the audience to engage critically and reflectively with whatever is offered; to interrogate its circumstances and specificity while recognizing it is not an individual, gender or racial issue but part of the human condition, and a social and cultural phenomenon that none of us should ignore… [As such] as adults we now have another chance to resist, dismiss and condemn bullying. (p. 126)

Indeed, as adults we can, and should work to diminish bullying in schools, and in society. To this end, popular culture exposes us to the phenomenon of bullying and makes us want to re-investigate the schooling experience as educators, as policy-makers, as parents.

A fine analysis: the rub, however, is that while popular culture can instigate parents, educators, and policy makers to re-investigate bullying, and while a solid analysis can provide good reasons for taking civic action with regard to bullying, all of this does not address why one would “wish” to relive one’s school experience of, say bullying (staying with the example from the text) “again and again,” or from my own experience, why I would wish to relive the anxiety of my dream of not having graduated from high school “again and again?” What is inferred but not addressed in the analysis is the structure of one’s lived-experience.

What is one’s lived-experience? While the term “lived-experience” is often used as a descriptor, a term to describe the events of one’s existential world, it is important to note also that “lived-experience” has structure to it and this structure reveals the “moment of truth” (to quote Jack Dawson) of the event. Again, Rose’s narration of the sinking of the Titanic at one level describes what happened; at another her narrative has a certain structure to it that brings her (and the salvage crew) to the moment of truth—“on that night 1,500 people…” The structure of Rose’s narration depicts more than a literary device, in that Brock asks Rose, “Are you ready, Rose, to go back to Titanic?” Here this is a literary device used by the director, but for my purpose, “going-back” lays out another structure, the psychic dimension of lived-experience as framed within psychoanalytic notions of “transference” and the “working through” of Rose’s trauma of the ship’s sinking. Returning to my bullying illustration from the text, what is missed in the analysis is the “truth” of the event -- the trauma of bullying and how it structures one’s wish to relive it over and over again.

What is the “truth” that I’m making reference to? In Dialectic of Freedom, Maxine Greene (1988) quotes a verse from poet Muriel Rukeyser, “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open” (p. 57). Indeed, when Rose Dawson in Titanic tells her “truth” the world does split open, as we relive the trauma of the sinking with her. Here the complete picture is difficult to process emotionally; the re-experiencing of loss is at once painful and entertaining. The “truth” is both disorientating and difficult to face, especially “truths” about one’s life.

Heidegger (1998) points out the disorientating dimension of the truth in his classic study of Plato’s allegory of the cave. Drawing from Book VII of the Republic, Heidegger points out that in this allegory the soul’s journey towards the truth entails a moment of disorientation: as the philosopher moves outside the cave and into the openness of the earth above, his eyes cannot adjust to the blinding light of the sun, causing the philosopher to stumble. Here education—the craft of turning the soul—provides direction at that moment of disorientation. And here, Heidegger states,

Real education lays hold of the soul itself and transforms it in its entirety by first leading us to a place of our essential being and accustoming us to it… Thus the fulfillment of the essence of “education” can be achieved only in the region of [unconcealment]…the truth in the proper sense. The essence of “education” is grounded in the essence of “truth.” (pp. 167, 170)

For Heidegger, “education” and “truth” are brought together in an essential unity; to talk about education is to infer the moment of truth, to “unconceal.”

Returning to Maxine Greene (1988), she writes,

To “unconceal” is to create clearings, spaces in the midst of things where decisions can be made. It is to break through the masked and falsified, to reach toward what is also half-hidden or concealed. When a woman, when any human tries to tell the truth and act on it, there is no predicting what will happen. (p. 58)

Also writing on the trauma of “truth” as a moment of “unconcealment,” is psychoanalyst James Grotstein (2003) who asks, “how much truth can the subject tolerate at any given moment?” (p. 223). Here Grotstein tells us that far from a philosophical proposition, we can only emotionally process the truth of the moment in small doses. Unconcealing, lifting the mask of one’s experience, of being bullied, for example, is both disorientating and painful, and is most likely to be avoided if possible. From another perspective, Buddhist nun Pema Chodron (1997) observes, “When the bottom falls out and we can’t find anything to grasp, it hurts a lot. . . We might have some romantic view of what [this] means, but when we are nailed with the truth, we suffer” (p. 7). Indeed, to process trauma -- the trauma of schooling -- we need falsehoods to aid in our digesting the truth of the event, and popular culture provides just enough falsehood to allow us to re-experience these traumas at a safe distance.

To fully appreciate the importance of the question at hand then, we need to address the trauma of schooling. Fisher, Harris, and Jarvis show how popular culture frames schooling with particular ideological intents, discourses, and modes of representation, but they miss how the structure of the lived-experience of schooling frames its truth. That is, from the above discussion on truth, if education and truth form an essential unity, i.e., they are related, and if we can tolerate only small dosages of the truth because it is traumatic, then it follows that given the trauma of education, we can only handle, or relive, a small dosage of schooling -- the truth of education -- at any given moment. That is, take the truth of one’s lived experience of being bullied, for instance: the shame, humiliation, fear, and pain—all this hurt can only be relived in small doses, and here popular culture draws us in by representing bullying in precisely this fashion: in small dosages.

Further, we relive this school experience again and again because the trauma of schooling is continually transferred into the present. Popular culture may instigate our wish to relive the school experience, but this doesn’t fully account for why, for instance, I have dreams about not graduating from high school. To explain why past school experiences are relived in the present we need a concept like transference to articulate the structure of schooling experience. Jonathan Lear (2005) discusses three ways of thinking about transference: 1) the transfer of an emotion or thought of significance from the past onto the present, 2) the transference of an idiosyncratic event, such as trauma, that creates a mental structure, a position, like the bully-position, where one’s lived experience, one’s sense of reality, is structured in part in a bully-like way. Here, “one cannot escape from this compulsion to repeat… Transference, then, is a repetition that cannot (yet) be remembered in the right sort of way” (p. 136). One repeats an action, relives it over and over without knowing that one is repeating it. And 3) within the analytic setting of therapy, one’s repetitive actions are disrupted, by inducing the transference and working through it. That is, one acquires, “a practical ability to recognize [the] meaning as it arises in the small-scale and large-scale issues in life. The process of acquiring this practical skill Freud would later come to call working-through” (p. 101).

By locating the psychic process of transference in lived-experience it becomes clear that while a scholarly analysis of education in popular culture is necessary to our understanding of schooling, it is not sufficient to help us work though the truth of schooling -- the trauma, and how this trauma is relived again and again. Indeed, only after we’ve worked through the truths of our lived experience of schooling can we address the question, when does “education” end? When do we let go of it? And only after we let go of education, can we “grow up” and move on to other ways of learning and living in our lives.


Cameron, J. (Producer & Director). (1997). Titanic. [Motion picture].  USA:  20th Century Fox.

Chodron, P. (1997). When things fall apart: Heartfelt advice for difficult times. Boston: Shambala Press.

Greene, M. (1988). The dialectic of freedom. New York: Teacher’s College Press.

Grotstein, J. (2003). East is east and west is west and ne’er the twain shall meet. In J. Safran (Ed.), Psychoanalysis and Buddhism  (221-229). Boston: Wisdom Publications.

Heidegger, M. (1998). Plato’s doctrine of truth. In W. McNeill (Ed.), Pathmarks/Martin Heidegger  (155-182). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lear, J. (2005). Freud. New York: Routledge.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: February 24, 2009
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15576, Date Accessed: 5/27/2022 12:21:51 PM

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About the Author
  • Glenn Hudak
    University of North Carolina at Greensboro
    E-mail Author
    GLENN M. HUDAK is a Professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Cultural Foundations at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. His areas of interests include Philosophy of Education and Philosophic Investigations into Digital/Popular Culture
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